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Daniel Rubin: When justice turns a blind eye

Why did it take so long for anyone to listen to George Shuler? The Monday before Thanksgiving, the West Philadelphia man went to Family Court to explain why he'd missed five months of child-support payments to the mother of his 15-year-old son.

Why did it take so long for anyone to listen to George Shuler?

The Monday before Thanksgiving, the West Philadelphia man went to Family Court to explain why he'd missed five months of child-support payments to the mother of his 15-year-old son.

The judge asked him how much he had in his pocket - $300 - and she settled for half. Then she told him not to go anywhere, he was being arrested.

He'd failed to show up for his preliminary hearing on charges of possessing crack cocaine, she told him. And another judge had issued a bench warrant for him. George Shuler wasn't his only name, she said. He also went by Bernard McDonald.

"That's not me," Shuler said.

Shuler is a 39-year-old black man. McDonald is 27 and white. Their records were inadvertently mixed up in computerized court records.

For the next 32 hours, George Shuler would be plunged into a criminal-justice nightmare that Kafka could have penned. He'd be manacled and secured in leg irons as he was transported to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road, where against his will he was given an AIDS test and a tuberculosis shot.

He'd be denied his one phone call to his wife or his lawyer, who had represented him in court in the child-support matter. He says he was told he could not call anyone until he was processed in prison - and that would have required that he sign in as Bernard McDonald and wear a wrist band bearing the other man's name.

Which Shuler refused to do.

It was only when he had a hearing in prison the next day that the paper trail was carefully compared and the mistake caught.

How could this happen? And what can be done to keep it from happening again?

As Shuler and his attorney, Tina Lawson, describe it, he was due in Judge Elizabeth Jackson's court because he had missed five payments of $290. He said he'd lost his job in May, and it took some months to receive unemployment checks.

The irony of George Shuler's strange case is that he'd worked as a medical-records examiner; his job was to compare people's names with their Social Security numbers to make sure they matched.

Shuler protested when the judge said he was to be arrested. He balked again when the sheriff's deputy approached him in court to put him in handcuffs.

His attorney says at that point the judge asked Shuler to provide his Social Security number and directed an aide to compare the number with that of the wanted man.

The numbers matched.

Indeed, the records are a tangle. If you use the court's computerized system, it shows that Shuler and McDonald are aliases of one man with the same birthday and the same Social Security number. They also show that this person with dual identities has several convictions on theft and drug charges.

But Shuler and his attorney insist that record is not his.

If you examine the actual bench warrant, which I did at the Criminal Justice Center, it spells out that the wanted man is 6 feet tall and 205 pounds. The arrest record alleges that a white man with curly hair bought $10 worth of crack last December in a housing project at 39th and Ludlow.

Shuler is 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds.

Judge Jackson issued a statement yesterday, saying her office has "learned in the last few days that there is another person with the alias of George Shuler against whom the bench warrant was actually issued. We further recently learned that someone erroneously placed the information for Mr. Shuler on the active bench warrant. It appears that two separate defendants have been merged together as one."

Shuler says that twice - in the lockup at the bottom of the Domestic Relations Court building and then in prison - intake officers called up his case on the computer and summoned a picture of the other suspect.

He says they told him they would look into his claim that they'd arrested the wrong man. But shifts kept changing, along with people who knew his tale, and he kept being moved along in the system toward a prison cell.

After his 1 p.m. hearing in Family Court on Nov. 24, Shuler's attorney accompanied him to the lockup, but at 3 p.m. she went to feed her parking meter. When she got back, Shuler was gone.

She says she figured that if his problem wasn't straightened out he'd call her. He didn't.

Instead, he was transported to 1401 Arch St. and then to prison, where he arrived around 6 p.m. He gave up his keys, his iPod, his wallet with his name on his license and credit cards. He was put in a holding cell with about 40 other prisoners. Three times "Bernard McDonald" was called before Shuler thought to answer.

"It was," he says, "like a dream." A bad one.

About 3 a.m. he was called - again by the wrong name - and he told the officer his problem. He remembers saying, "Sir, it's a funny thing. I'm here on a mistaken identification."

The officer said he'd sort everything out, but first he had 100 inmates to process.

Shuler waited all night. He did not sleep. He was given a bologna sandwich, an orange and iced tea. Finally, at 6 or 7 a.m. he was asked to sign papers using the name Bernard McDonald. He wouldn't. They sent him to the medical office anyway for his shot and blood work.

By now, he says, he was hollering.

"I said, 'I'm not going to take that shot. I'm a little upset. Why should I take this shot when I'm not charged with anything?' "

Worn down, he gave in. Afterward he was put in a smaller cell with six people.

Around 9 a.m. he called over a new corrections officer. "I think there's been a mistake here," he told her. "My name is George Shuler." He got nowhere.

Two hours later a woman called out "Bernard McDonald," and Shuler was told to put on a wrist band that he says bore McDonald's name.

Shuler refused.

The officers huddled with a supervisor around a computer screen. The supervisor informed Shuler they'd get him a bench-warrant hearing that afternoon around 1.

And so "Bernard McDonald" was processed, made to shower, put on an orange jumpsuit, and return to the holding cell.

The hearing took less than 10 minutes. The trial commissioner, Dominic Muraglia, a veteran of 33 years, heard Shuler's story, had his aides examine the paperwork, and, according to Shuler, said, "Get this guy out of my prison before he sues the mess out of us."

Yet the process seemed to move in slow motion. It wasn't until 9 p.m., Shuler says, that the gates opened and he was deposited onto State Road, given a SEPTA token and 75 cents.

A bus took him to Bridge and Pratt, where he caught the elevated train back to West Philadelphia.

His wife, Rhonda, was waiting for him, hysterical, about to call police.

"Where have you been for two days?" she asked.

"You don't want to know," he replied. "Let me get something to eat and I'll talk to you in a minute."

Since then the judge and her staff have offered "our sincere apology." Meanwhile, Shuler is talking with his attorney, contemplating legal action.

Lawson, a former prosecutor, questions why a judge would investigate whether those coming to domestic court are fugitives. She said if word gets out, then those who owe money will shy away from court, and mothers and children will suffer.

The judge, in her statement, said that the court has been reviewing defendants' criminal histories for years, and that Shuler's is the first time there has been such an error.

Until about two years ago, she wrote, judges and their staffs received copies of the suspect's photographs with the bench warrants.

"We were not advised as to why the pictures were no longer submitted," the judge wrote.

I'm thinking the courts might reconsider their policy because it'll be cheaper in the long run. When judges arrest someone on a bench warrant, it ought to be the right man.